The Southern Gulf Islands -Koh Samui, Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao 7 May -3 June 2008
The journey over was calm…thankfully as I don't travel very well on boats! The plan was to have a couple of days in Samui and then head by car ferry to the neighbouring island of Koh Pha-Ngan which is a bit smaller. We also had a loose plan to undertake a diving course on the even smaller island of Koh Tao though I had a few reservations about this!
First impressions of Samui were that it reminded us both of Bali lots of farangs ..both expats living here and holiday makers - everything in English and fairly built up, though there are remote areas, mainly to the south of the island. It's not an island that is set up particularly for camping. We asked the guy at the tourist information and he was really unsure and had to "phone a friend" to find out where we could camp. I think in desperation they suggested a beachside Wat or temple where the monks are renowned for being very hospitable!! They welcomed us in though it wasn't ideal as there was lots of coming and going from nearby restaurants/bars, so a bit of a restless night. Next morning we went to a nearby bakery (Sonya's owned and run by the lady herself who serves a really good German breakfast) where we met our saviour Dee a lovely lady from Canada. Dee has travelled a great deal and was really interesting and interested in our trip so we stayed chatting all day, after which she had invited us to stay. Dee lives with Quinn her 11 year old son, who is a great kid. Dee's husband Grant is a helicopter pilot living and working in Hong Kong so they miss him a lot when he is away and (we hope!!) they enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed theirs.
We had a great few days with Dee and Quinn being shown around the island. We took in the big Buddha and the nearby beach suburbs of Chaweng (really like Bali!) and Lamai. Like many farangs in Samui Dee and Quinn have adopted a lovely dog Baby Girl (one of those names that stuck!) and it was great meeting her too, on our travels I seem to have made a doggy friend at every campsite! We met lots of Dee's and Quinn's friends (many have children at the very good international school Quinn attends) and went to a great beach party, and out for some lovely meals. It's a really nice laid back environment here and many families where the husband works 'off shore" choose to live here and enjoy a great lifestyle at a fraction of the cost of the UK or Australia. We could certainly see the attraction.
Our initial plan to take the car ferry to Koh Pha-Ngan came unstuck when we went to book only to be told that as of that day (no kidding!) the car ferry between the islands had been cancelled due to lack of use! So we took the ferry directly to Koh Tao whilst Dee and Quinn kindly "car sat" for us.
The trip over to Koh Tao (all ferries go via Koh Pha-Ngan) took 3 hours and again was good and calm. Koh Tao or Turtle island is allegedly the cheapest place in the world to take your PADI Open Water diving certificate, so whilst I was still a bit nervous we decided to bite the bullet and get it done. Andrew had done his at the Great Barrier Reef but as he was pretty rusty (hadn't dived for 11 years!) he wanted to take a refresher course. Koh Tao is a lot smaller than the other islands and whilst it has all mod cons is still relatively unspoilt, with lovely scenery and excellent snorkelling and diving.
The ferry pulled in to Ban Mae Hat the island's bustling main town. There we signed up for our diving course and took a taxi/truck to Chal Lok Baan Kao the island's 3rd largest beach where our diving school Sunshine II was located. The first diving school on Koh Tao opened 11 years ago and now there are over 50 operators! We were so pleased we went with Sunshine and would really recommend them whole heartedly. The dive coordinator Natalie -an Aussie - had been on the island for 7 years and all the instructors were well trained and professional as well as being great fun. Andrew quickly got in the swing after his refresher dive and took the 3 day advanced course which qualifies him to do wreck dives. I completed my Open Water course, despite feeding the fish by being violently sick between dives due to the choppy water. I was fine once I got "down below" which was a big relief!
I was the old nervous one of our little group which consisted of 3 of us, me Bianca from Germany and Elka from Belgium. The girls were great company as was our instructor Matt and in the end I really enjoyed it.
Due to the recent storms, an after effect of the Myanmar Cyclone, the water visibility was a bit patchy in parts but we still saw plenty of beautiful fish, corals and sting rays and we are both keen to do another dive somewhere on the trip (Cambodia maybe?) After the fairly intense course we had a couple of days r & r on Tao just snorkelling in the bays and watching the fire stick jugglers whilst sipping a drink at night. Tao is a great place for a relaxing break.
Next we headed on to Koh Pha-Ngan. This is very much the party island having a big full moon rave once a month and having a bit of a druggy reputation though the authorities are clamping down on this. Mainly as we were told we wouldn't get accommodation and partly as we are old and boring, we opted to miss the big party by 2 days. We arrived after the rave had burnt out and found a cheap bungalow in the north of the island. The plan had been to rent a bike and do a tour of the island, but as we are now a bit more paranoid re security after the whole laptop thing, we had left our passports in the safe in the car. No passports no bike ..so we didn't really get a good look around, as taxis were very pricey. Instead we both had a Thai massage and did some more snorkelling. You could see the after effects of the party from the "sleeping it off" bodies covered in body paint still littering the beaches ! We will definitely visit again and have a proper look around. Koh Pha-Ngan had a similar feel to Samui but smaller and more "alternative" a bit of a Byron Bay feel to it all Yoga, Re-Birthing, and Find Your Inner Goddess Workshops etc If we have to back track through Thailand again (looking more and more likely if we can't pass through China or Myanmar) maybe we will take the car over for a real look around on the way back down.
On Saturday 24 May we headed back "home" to Samui where Grant had arrived so it was lovely to meet him. We all went to Helen a friend of Dee's beautiful home for a swim in the pool on Sunday and Grant was presented with a gorgeous birthday cake… very happy 45th Grant!!!
We intended to head off the next day but Andrew managed to mangle his tooth on a fork -whilst eating and talking at the same time!- and has to have a lot of work done.
As the dentists here are very good we are staying around until his treatment is complete probably another week or so. In the meantime we have had a bit more of a look around the island, and have been camping down south at Ban Bang Kao a quiet little fishing village. Today (Thursday 29th May) we were going to take a long boat trip out to nearby Coral Island with a local fisherman but last night there was torrential tropical rain so we have put it off to allow visibility to improve.
So, back to the dentist for Andrew tomorrow, after which we'll better know how long we'll be here. Still hope to take our long boat trip as well as a a trip up the mountains in the middle of Samui which are supposed to be very beautiful.
Thankfully Andrew's dental appointment went well and was completed in one session. The clinic was very state of the art and we found out subsequently that people come to Samui from all over the world to combine a holiday with dental treatment as the dental care here is both excellent and a fraction of the cost of home.
So, (with Andrew sporting a lovely new smile!!) we were ready to set off up the mountain. Samui is a small island and when camping down the South coast at Ao Bang Kao (nice and quiet but beaches less suited for swimming as the tide is miles out) we met Lindsey a lovely lady from England who it turned out knows our Canadian friends as she works at Quinn's school.
Her husband Viroj is a builder locally, and together with a few family members they own 100 Rai on top of a mountain which is the 2nd highest point on the island. They took us up to see it and the journey was pretty steep in parts, but very scenic.
Once we reached the top the view was truly amazing being panoramic enough to afford a view of both the sunrise and sunset, and a sweep of islands.
They are keen to start a camping business allowing people to stay up there and they also plan to organise eco tours in the evenings to see the area's wildlife i.e.) monkeys, squirrels and many birds. As detailed previously there aren't a lot of camping places in Samui so we think it a great idea. They would be able to arrange transport up (and presumably down!) the mountain for those without a vehicle. If interested in staying here please call either Lindsey on 089-5914946 or Viroj on 086-9419577 and they can give you more information.
In our final few days in Samui we relaxed and had some fun with Grant, Dee and especially Quinn at Hat Choeng Mo one of Samui's many beaches where we all enjoyed playing on the trampolines and inflatable ice berg....(everyone is a child at heart!) though I must admit I was the only one not nimble enough to get to the top!!!
One of the Wats or temples we visited was Wat Khunaram, in the South. The main feature is a mummified monk, (Loung Pordaeng )his family had him "done" approximately 20 years ago (after his death thankfully!) as an inspiration to all his followers! Again..not much in English so we didn't really get much more information but we both really liked the shades!
The island has one of the world's only monkey training schools and whilst we didn't visit this we did see plenty of the graduates either riding to work in trucks or hard at it shinning trees to get the coconuts. They have a really cool technique twisting off the fruit like a stalk off an apple ..and they can do it equally with their feet or hands. Very clever and amazing to watch.
Buffalo fighting is a local sport in Samui where villagers lay bets on 2 warring buffaloes. As a real animal lover I was initially not keen to see this but apparently the animals are never hurt and it is always all over in a second or 2 ..one always backs down so no real fighting happens. We wanted to have a look but unfortunately we couldn't time it to see a fight ..though we went to the stadium and saw a few of the competitors taking it easy between matches! The smell was a little intense, maybe that's why the fights never last long, neither of them are keen to get near the other!
On our travels around Samui we met a couple of real "overlanders" who rate a mention. Graham from NZ and Elka from Belgium are doing a similar trip to ours in reverse (UK to NZ) by push bikes! They were having a well deserved day off on a motorbike when we met them, how fit would you have to be?!
Alas, all good things come to an end and sadly the time had come to leave Samui so we said a very sad farewell to the Canadian Heslops (including Baby Girl and friend!) who had looked after us so well and on the 3rd June boarded the ferry back to Khaom. Samui was a great spot for a holiday and Dee's friend and neighbour Marcus a website designer (see the photo above of Marcus with his best pal Doggitt on his motorbike) has produced an excellent website for a client which provides a wealth of information about events/activities/accommodation and all aspects of staying in Samui. Have a look to plan your trip on www.samui-contact.com